Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

Creating energy from light and air - new research on biofuel cells

8th May 2012

Researchers are studying how to make electricity from electrodes coated in bacteria, and other living cells, using light or hydrogen as the fuel

Creating energy from light and air - new research on biofuel cellstitle=

The aim of the research long-term is to develop more efficient biofuel cells, seen as the future of electronics. Because biofuel cells are powered by readily available biological materials, they have the potential to be used indefinitely when electricity is required at places where is it not possible to replace a battery or recharge them.

Most biofuel cells create electricity using enzymes that process glucose, but the Leeds research will focus on bacterial enzymes that can harness light or hydrogen gas to create energy. The work is funded by a £1.42m grant from the European Research Council.

Lead researcher, Dr Lars Jeuken, from the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences, says:"Technology that creates an electrical signal from a biochemical reaction is already in commercial use, for example in blood glucose biosensors. However, developing an efficient biofuel cell that can create sufficient electricity for general use has proved much more difficult. This is mainly because the systems developed to date have only limited control of how inorganic materials and biological molecules interact."

"Our research combines state of-the-art surface physics, colloid and organic chemistry, membrane biology and electrochemistry to develop electrodes with complete control of the biochemical interactions needed to create electricity. We now want to apply this to membrane proteins to generate energy from light and hydrogen."

"In their simplest form, biofuel cells have two electrodes, one which removes electrons from a fuel - for instance glucose or hydrogen - whilst the other donates electrons to molecules of oxygen, making water. When these are connected by a wire, they form a circuit, resulting in an electrical current."

Dr Jeuken and his team have extensive experience in making electrodes that directly interact with enzymes located in the membranes that surround cells. This new project will begin by applying this technique to two specific groups of enzymes, one which harnesses light and the other, hydrogen. These are found in membranes of chloroplast - the parts of cells which conduct photosynthesis - or bacterial cells, both of which have promising applications in biofuel cells. The final part of the project will aim to connect electrodes to the membranes of living bacterial cells.

"Not only will this help scientists understand the role of different enzymes in making energy, but how best to capture and use this energy in electrical applications", says Dr Jeuken.

Dr Jeuken's research will also contribute to a new Interdisciplinary Centre for Microbial Fuel Cells (ICMFC), set up jointly between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. The Centre will bring together chemists from York, biophysicists such as Dr Jeuken from Leeds and engineers from Sheffield, to work together on improving the performance of microbial fuel cells, using a combination of synthetic biology and nanoengineering.

Image information and credits: An artistic representation of submicron lipid vesicles filled with fluorescent molecules. The vesicles contain enzymes which convert oxygen to water and transport protons outside the vesicles in the process. The proton transport changes the pH inside the vesicles, which is seen by a change in fluorescence. Reproduced by permission of Lars J C Jeuken and The Royal Society of Chemistry from Soft Matter, 2011, 7, 49-52, DOI: 10.1039/C0SM01016B


Recent Grants

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452

Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241

Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661

Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596

Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350

Paul Millner, Peter Stockley, Darren Tomlinson, YCR (Apr 2014), £95,874

Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140

Dave Westhead, MRC (Apr 2014), £18,304

Brendan Davies, BBSRC (Mar 2014), £451,829

Jim Deuchars, MRC (Mar 2014), £300,000

Adam Kupinski, Children with Cancer (Mar 2014), £50,000

Alison Baker, Steve Baldwin, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £403,439

Sarah Zylinski, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £355,869

Dave Lewis, Nigel Hooper, Tony Turner, Hugh Pearson, James Duce, Alzheimer's Society (Feb 2014), £29,871

Ronaldo Ichyama, Samit Chakrabarty, International Spinal Research Trust (Jan 2014), £304,600

Brendan Davies, BBSRC/Bayer Crop Science SA-NV (Jan 2014), £470,053

Adrian Goldman, Steve Baldwin, Stephen Muench, Thomas Edwards, Arwen Pearson , BBSRC (Jan 2014), £467,103

Stefan Kepinski, BBSRC (Jan 2014), £359,269

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jan 2014), £179,445

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Jan 2014), £105,937

John Barr, Thomas Edwards, MRC (Dec 2013), £469,505

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Dec 2013), £349,017

Darren Tomlinson, Yorkshire Cancer Research (Nov 2013), £142,334

Nikita Gamper, MRC (Nov 2013), £336,563

Keith Hamer, Alison Dunn, NERC (Nov 2013), £47,233

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2013), £749,365

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £360,508

Eileen Ingham, Stacey-Paul Wilshaw, NHS R&D (Oct 2013), £356,623

Sheena Radford, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £329,906

Nigel Hooper, Alzheimer's Research (Oct 2013), £327,075

Eileen Ingham, EPSRC (Oct 2013), £276,751

David Beech, BHF (Oct 2013), £109,974

Mark Harris, Medical Research Foundation (Oct 2013), £34,455

James Dachtler, Royal Society (Oct 2013), £15,000

Ade Whitehouse, Teresa Rosenbaum Golden Charitable Trust (Oct 2013), £10,000

Jurgen Denecke, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £382,093

Andy Cuming, EU (Sep 2013), £257,714

Paul Knox, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £411,948

Vas Ponnambalam, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £245,031

Peter Meyer, EU (Sep 2013), £242,166

Dave Rowlands, Nic Stonehouse, EU (Sep 2013), £202,556

Derek Steele, BHF (Sep 2013), £103,629

Joan Boyes, NC3Rs (Sep 2013), £90,000

Peter Stockley, Royal Society (Sep 2013), £11,400

Darren Tomlinson, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £5,645

Nic Stonehouse, Dave Rowlands, BBSRC (Aug 2013), £574,906

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Adrian Goldman, Royal Society (Aug 2013), £75,000

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Aug 2013), £40,000

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